A "buoyant, lyrical, ephemeral, beautiful sea of words"


Lisa Olstein

Pain Studies

Bellevue Literary Press

Paperback (also available as an e-book, an audiobook, and on Audible), 978-1-9426-5868-9, 192 pgs., $16.99

March 4, 2020


Floating limbless on this buoyant, lyrical, ephemeral, beautiful sea of words, I wondered, where am I and, moreover, where is Olstein, the poet who created the tide? This work ebbs and flows like a reedy back bay, often calm and gentle, sometimes flooding, crashing and rough. The feel reminds me of Woolf, who is channeled here, with even greater dimensions of interiority, and a visceral texture of a Saul Bellow descriptive narrative. In a word or two, this work is deft, ingenious, almost overwhelmingly so. Let me explain.


There’s no describing the journey in other than comparatives: this is poetry, this is prose; this is raw physicality in words, this is contemplative. My first overarching feel was allegory, centered on pain. I wanted to see this as pain anchoring the imperfection, the spoiling of life that is human existence and the downward spiral of years.


But it’s more than that. Olstein uses pain—migraines—centrally, as Alice’s looking glass sequel: what felt initially like a random series of plangent observations eventually yields an ordered arrangement from general to specific conceptualization, a parade of concession to pain. I can’t help but see pain as a continuity of human struggle in life, and Olstein “fights one fire with another,” her words against pain’s voiceless edicts. I can see the intransigent migraine pain as Joan of Arc, unrelenting, unrepentant, just as I can equally see Olstein as the remorseless heretic against pain’s unavoidable sanctity: life isn’t the absence of pain but rather, pain itself.


Olstein’s trial is much like Joan of Arc’s, her heresy examined from a kaleidoscope of perspectives: the Oxford English Dictionary, colors, math, tapestry, pain indices, and ultimately, sufferer as defendant. Olstein is on trial, but as sufferers condemned to mortality, so are we all. Like Joan of Arc, we all leave a painstaking trail of testimony, denial, refusal to accept or recant, “epiphanic,” she testifies, “full of lyric logic and lyric leaps,” but in the end, to no avail. She is—we are—consumed by the fire, unrepentant.


There is momentary détente in the standoff with pain, a pulled-back perspective at migraine’s low tide:


“. . . denial may be how I’ve managed migraine, but migraine is what undoes my denial

. . . I learned there’s no good time to be stricken and no preparation for being struck.”


Much like life but more like death, there’s no predicting, explaining, pinpointing causality, nor avoiding the pain of life. Olstein configures that darkness beautifully, coldly, lyrically, frighteningly, inexorably: “The irony is,” Olstein quotes Maggie Nelson, “My catharsis was writing down there is no catharsis.”


This book defies definition and resists description, much less review. My final thought is this: take the journey, read it. It’s brain, blood, pain, life, and death; poetry in prose, a book that must be read and lived to be owned. You’ll neither regret nor forget the journey.


Lisa Olstein is the author of four poetry collections published by Copper Canyon Press: Radio Crackling, Radio Gone, winner of the Hayden Carruth Award; Lost Alphabet, a Library Journal “Best Book of the Year” selection; Little Stranger, a Lannan Literary Selection; and Late Empire. She is a member of the poetry faculty at the University of Texas at Austin where she teaches in the New Writers Project and Michener Center for Writers MFA programs. Olstein also serves as an associate editor for Tupelo Quarterly. Pain Studies is her first book of creative nonfiction.